Simon Burns, CEO and Co-Founder of Vial, sits down with Marcia Swank, Vial’s new VP of Ophthalmology, to discuss her new role, challenges in ophthalmology trials, and their plans for building a tech-enabled CRO. Follow Vial on LinkedIn for to stay up-to-date on our latest conversations.
Simon Burns: Thank you for joining me, Marcia, appreciate you taking the time on your third day here at Vial.
Marcia Swank: [laughs] Thanks, Simon, I’m happy to be here.
Simon Burns: We are so thrilled to have you, today’s a big day for us, or at least Monday was, in you joining the team. Hoping to spend some time today getting to know you a bit more. Introduce you to the folks you’ve been tracking about and keeping up with us. We’re so thrilled that you joined us on our big adventure here. Quickly before we jump in do you want to say hi and introduce yourself?
Marcia Swank: My name is Marcia Swank and I am the VP of Ophthalmology for Vial as of Monday. Happy to be here and happy to be talking with you today, Simon.
Simon Burns: Awesome. Phenomenal. Quickly before we, I’m sure the folks want to hear more about you and what you’re excited to do here at Vial, but before that I was hoping to give some context on where we come from and where we’re going and why this is such a momentous day for us here at Vial. So where we started from was a mission to reimagine clinical trials. To say trials the way they’ve been done are still far too much on paper and old systems. They haven’t been reimagined for the modern day. Reimagined with technology, reimagined with great operators, reimagined with an idea to be faster and more efficient for sponsors.
And so Vial was started with that core mission in mind and we built a team now of just over 125 people spanning dermatology so far and on Monday we were incredibly thrilled to hire our second business unit leader of our second therapeutic area in Marcia which is why this is such a big day and big moment for us here at Vial.
What does this mean? This means that we’re expanding our scope supporting ophthalmic sponsors in anterior and posterior segments. And it means a lot more in terms of technology investments and deployments to power trials. So Marcia with that I think it’s pretty clear why we’re so excited about you. This is the doubling of our number of therapeutic areas. This is a huge advancement for us. Tell us about yourself. Many of the things we talk about a lot, the challenges in running trials. You’ve seen first hand, maybe you could give us a sense of what are the challenges you’ve seen and in running ophthalmic trials and where do you get excited about what we’re going to be building here at Vial to solve those?
Marcia Swank: There are many challenges in ophthalmology research and just research in general, in all phases of the operational aspect of trial design and delivery. However, I have found in my experience that those challenges are typically secondary to outdated or lack of technology and processes and therapeutic experience, so I’ve found that you can only go so far with one or the other, but you have to have it all kind in a package and well-balanced to get the results. And that’s what I’m most excited about with Vial is being able to combine the technology and therapeutic experience together.
Simon Burns: Fantastic. And your background, yourself, you came from the clinic. You saw pioneering the field, do work, and then you moved up through various CROs where you were recently in the ophthalmic space. Maybe tell us a little bit about your personal background and, not only seeing the challenges in running trials from from a CRO perspective, seen it hands on [laughs] in running trials and creating source and capturing data. So maybe give us a flavor of what you’ve accomplished in your career before jumping in with us.
Marcia Swank: So I have 23 years of ophthalmology experience and I started out in an optometry practice in Frankfort, Indiana. The optometrists there were just lovely people and I kinda dove right in and was super interested in the eye care field and, they actually paid me to go observe in a surgery center to watch surgeries and it this poured into my career and… I then took a position in a really heavy research clinic in Indianapolis, Indiana and this corneal specialist, he actually had his own research foundation. And it was a clinic that was very heavy on that research side and that’s where my real passion for ophthalmology grew because we were conducting studies that were often considered cutting edge and they were usually investigator initiated. Although some sponsored as well.
But these were cutting edge studies such as artificial eye risk, corneal cross-linking different methods of doing a corneal transplant so I had the true benefit of really being a part of these studies from the research side as well as the clinical and the surgical side. And this really gave me a well-rounded picture of how the research was conducted and lessons learned. And then the journey of the patient from the beginning to the end and being able to watch patients see for the first time. You know, after a procedure or after being a part of a study or those kind of surgical studies. That was really life changing for me.
I found myself going home after working several hours and reading about other ophthalmology research studies going on in the field and… And I also learned how to dissect eyes at this clinic. Then I went home and did the same thing with my children made them do that as well. But from there I moved on to North Carolina and I worked as a Research Director for a very large ophthalmology practice. And we opened up several other locations in North Carolina as well. I went on to own my own SMO and consulting business where I did some work with some other [00:05:00] ophthalmology sponsors. And a pharmaceutical company. From there I worked my way up through the various positions at three other CROs and the last position that I held was the Executive Director and Head of Ophthalmology for a CRO right before I came on as VP of Ophthalmology Vial.
Simon Burns: The one thing I think everyone at Vial has taken or really picked up in speaking to you is just how much you care. You have a deep empathy for patients. You care about research normally because of the challenge it is from an operations perspective. You care for the impact on patients. Tell us a little bit more about what drives you, what motivates you to impact patients.
Marcia Swank: There’s a couple reasons that… Something that’s really important to me is the integrity and pride in everything that you do, both personally and professionally. I think that’s something really important to have. And independence. Being able to know how to do all things but yet humble enough to accept help where it’s needed and… And learn new things. Continuous learning. And I’ve taken those principles throughout my career and I’ve learned, bits and pieces from everyone, and in a collaboration from investigators to sponsors and… And people at CROs that, having that clinical side and that clinical background as well. Being able to see that impact, and see some patients see for the first time. How it didn’t just impact them personally but impacted their families as well, got to meet family members. Having that well rounded picture is what really drove me. And then in addition to that I’ve got some… Some health and eye care issues, hereditary issues, that run in my family so it’s really important to me that we have treatment for many of these conditions and the one that really plagues my family is AMD. So that’s really what I care most about and what drives my passion for ophthalmology.
Simon Burns: Let’s talk about some our plans for what we’re going to build together. We’ve we’ve worked very closely with the sponsor community, I think that the same challenges have kept coming up. There’s a challenge with the existing CROs and just being able to believe commitments about speed and about getting the high caliber team that you’re presented. There’s challenges about enrolling and enrolling on time and taking new approaches. But I think above all what I’ve been taken aback by in speaking to sponsors is just the sense that while we have you know, some really great people across the team here at Vial who are building technology for site startup and making that more efficient. Technology for enrollment and making that more efficient and faster and using all kinds of different channels. Whether it’s direct mail or radio or Facebook or Google, to find these patients. Or we have a whole team that’s just electronic medical record integrations and we spend all this time in the nitty-gritties of how to get Nextech integrations to work.
But when you zoom out and you talk to a sponsor and you say, here’s all the things we’re building, here’s how we can build faster trials for you. What they’ll often say is, that’s all great, Simon. That’s all great great to [laughs] hear you guys are working hard on the problem. But I just want a team that feels like an extension of my team. I just want a team that I can go into battle with that can go through these challenges with me, solve them creatively, and feel like I have a true partner. A true, strategic partner. More and more I think as we’re building the company we’re learning with leadership coming on, like you, it’s that we’re really building. We’re building a CRO that’s truly built for sponsors. That’s a true strategic partner. So maybe with that let’s talk about the next year ahead. What are we going to be doing with the CRO and in particular what what it is that your plans are to build the ophthalmology CRO that is exactly what I just described as built for sponsors and a strategic partner for them.
Marcia Swank: My plan as VP of Ophthalmology is to learn the ins and the outs of the technology and the technology that you put into place already and build that ophthalmology team that has this.. This niche for not just the therapeutic experience but they also have you know some technical background as well. To be able to then collaborate better with our sponsors and our site. And I think that’s been really missing for many years in this industry is… Is missing technology and collaboration and being more an extension of that team. And being able to help on that technology side while having that therapeutic experience. And that’s… That’s something that I’m hoping to build more of, and something that I plan to work really closely with our investigators as well as our clients. And get their feedback and their collaboration and point of view on how to best do that. So I think it’s not something that can be coined necessarily as my plan for Vial, I think it’s more of a partnership of what we plan to do at Vial together.
Simon Burns: Totally. One of the things I like to say is you know, to build a great healthcare technology company, you have to start with one of the two and you have to ultimately get both. You have to build great technology that is actually better, right? And serves the industry. And you have to build a phenomenal team. It’s only in a marriage of a phenomenal team of really talented operators. In our case clinical operations experts who understand the therapeutic area and the nuances and the technology, and those two together. That can really, radically change the industry both of the two of them. It’s really challenging.
Speaking of, let’s talk about our hiring plans for ophthalmology. So we’re hiring a lot, we’re hiring in a bunch of different roles. Maybe give us a quick overview. What are we hiring for and what will the ophthalmology CRO team look like in six, twelve months time?
Marcia Swank: We’re hiring for project managers as well as CRAs and basically we’re looking at having a team that is, again, balanced with that therapeutic experience as well as having some technical skills. So we’re hoping to have a few [00:10:00] PMs on board very quickly and to manage the study load that we have and yeah. I’m looking forward to it so I’m gonna really really excited.
Simon Burns: [laughs] So am I.
Marcia Swank: [laughs]
Simon Burns: And lastly and then we’ll jump here, engaging with sponsors. There’s a whole bunch of ophthalmic sponsors we’ll be talking to them, you’ll be talking to them. What’s the update in a few sentences here for the sponsor community. What should they expect from… From the Vial ophthalmology CRO?
Marcia Swank: Close collaboration. Requests for input. And a partner, more than anything. A partner to help them be more efficient in their practice. To help us learn how to be more efficient in our processes. So true partnership is really what they can expect as well as, the technology platform that we want them to be very much involved in as well.
Very well said. Couldn’t have said it better myself. So day three, lots more exciting stuff to come. Marcia, so thrilled you’re on the team and let’s reimagine ophthalmology clinical trials together.
Looking forward to it. Thank you, Simon.
Simon Burns: Thanks, Marcia.